Chef Dustin Ronspies.jpg
Photo by Leslie Kelly
Chefs Seth Caswell and Dustin Ronspies (right) at Saturday's Ready, Set, Go... Cook competition.
If he wasn't a chef, Dustin Ronspies

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Getting Down and Dirty With Chef Dustin

Chef Dustin Ronspies.jpg
Photo by Leslie Kelly
Chefs Seth Caswell and Dustin Ronspies (right) at Saturday's Ready, Set, Go... Cook competition.
If he wasn't a chef, Dustin Ronspies would love to be a farmer. In his cozy kitchen at Art of the Table, the Florida native does right by the hard-working men and women who raise food 'round here. Last weekend, he and his bud, Seth Caswell, faced off in a showdown at the U-District Farmer's Market.

The Iron Chef-style Ready, Set, Go... Cook showcased incredible ingredients from that magnificent market plus pantry items from the U-District Food Bank, demonstrating that, yes, you can be frugal AND fabulous. And, yes, both chefs used Spam in addition to the gorgeous produce, bacon from Sea Breeze Farm, cheese from Mt. Townsend Creamery, Tonnemaker peaches and much more.

Emmer & Rye's Caswell took home the blue ribbon after a tight contest, but the appreciative audience agreed both chefs were winners!

SW: You two were so much fun to watch compete during Ready, Set, Go... Cook with all your faux trash-talking.... tell us about the very first time you met Seth.

Dustin: I first met Seth in 2007 at the "RAFT" urban picnic, he called me and asked if I would grill salmon for the event. He was president of Chef''s Collaborative at the time and I was just getting Art of the Table started.

We chatted briefly and as I listened to the speech he gave on local food and the importance of cooking and eating locally, I wanted to connect with him as he seemed to know a lot about where I wanted to go with AOTT. It wasn't until spring of 2009 that we started hanging out and forging our friendship. It was definitely solidified that fall as he was hosting Emmer&Rye dinners at AOTT. Now we kick it on a regular basis, he's one of my closest friends. We constantly push each other to source as much food locally as possible in our establishments. We also drink a lot of beer and rye.

You grew up in Florida, right? When did you start cooking?

I grew up in Clearwater, Florida. I started washing dishes at a pizza joint in 1988 when I was 14. Why my mom let me get a job when I was 14, I have no idea. I eventually started cooking there and shortly after began working at Outback Steakhouse, I spent six years at Outback. That was where the cooking skills were solidified. It was the busiest Outback in the country and we got slammed nightly, like super slammed. We were all best friends on the line and if there was a hall of fame for cooking lines we would have been there without a doubt. When I quit, I vowed never to cook again. That lasted three weeks. I began running a mom and pop breakfast and lunch spot and that's when everything changed, I started to love cooking.

How in the world did you get on board with the personal cheffing on a yacht thing?

I knew someone who knew someone. Yachting actually was the result of a few different experiences. I graduated culinary school in February of 2000 and left for Beaune, France to work as a private chef for a hot air balloon company. I set up dinners in castles around France for the guests and fell in love with the food being produced in the different regions of the country, not to mention the beautiful produce being grown there. As it was a seasonal gig, I came back to the states and needed a real job. I contacted one of my instructors from school who hooked me up with a french chef named Herve that was working for a super wealthy family in Palm Beach and New York. I became his sous chef and for nine months he taught me the ins and outs fine dining, of multi-course dinners. The houses were run like The Ritz-Carlton. There were always people and parties and we cooked the best foods from all over the world. It was the only time I had a mentor and when he quit I took over as chef and worked for the family for another year and a half.

I quit to be part of a reality show entitled "The Family," which was a flop but a great time. I took a job with another family on the east coast for months months, quit, worked in a French brasserie for a year, got fed up with just about everything and was ready to scream when my roommate's boyfriend proposed going to Seattle to work on a yacht. He knew the captain and knew the chef was leaving as soon as the boat got back to Seattle. If I was interested in an interview he would work out all the details. I came to Seattle for the interview and was hooked as soon as I stepped off the plane, actually as soon as I walked through Pike Place Market. The food beckoned me. I spent the next three years on two yachts traveling and cooking through the waters of Canada and Alaska and cruising south to Mexico and Costa Rica.

What was the most outrageous request you got when you were cooking for the rich and not so famous?

I was asked to prepare a different flavor of Jell-O with Devon Creme for dessert every night for Mrs. Scott, the bosses' wife. The second family I worked for asked me to, in addition to being their chef, be their children's nanny.

Since arriving in Seattle, what's the best thing you've learned?

To cook with what you have immediately available to you, to cook locally.

You're big on connecting with farmers. Have you been to many farms? Do you dig it?

I HAVE visited some of the farms I source my food from, especially recently. I am in the process of filming a TV show idea with a local production company based on my relationships with the local farmers and artisans I work with. It is all related to what I do in line with the local foodstuffs I source and the ingredients I use at my restaurant. It will showcase people who are fully rooted in what they do, not only in producing food but also in how they strive to make the earth better for generations to come, how they are sustainable. This is something I believe is very important to the future of our planet. It's called "Locavore". Yes, I fully dig it. It's the right thing to do, it has to happen.

How do you try and convince a mainstream supermarket shopper to make the leap to buying local? Does it really taste better?

I think produce that is harvested hours before it goes to market is definitely going to taste better. Add to that the love and care the farmer puts into growing that produce, the work he/she puts into making that soil it grew in fertile and healthy, and the individual attention that every plant gets so that it will grow to its optimum level. The attention the animals get results in flavor also. They're fed organic feed and hay that is commonly grown on the farm, they are free to roam the land they live on and graze the pasture, they are treated with respect and are cared for so that they are free from sickness and disease. I will pay a bit extra for this kind of attention to my food. Not to mention that shopping at a farmers market keeps dollars in the community and your money goes directly to the people who deserve it, the farmers. On a basic level, the documentary "Food, Inc." should convince anyone to shop locally. Or just come to AOTT and get down.

What kind of knife do you use? Beyond the blade, what's your go-to kitchen gadget?

Yoshikane knives, made by the Yoshida family of Japan. Each knife is hand made. Beyond that my favorite utensil would be the spoon. I have many spoons of various shapes and sizes. I have favorites.

If you weren't a chef, what would you do for a living?

I'd be a farmer.

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

Beer and cheeseburgers.

Where are your favorite places to eat in Seattle?

Mike's house when we have dinner parties, Joule, Green Leaf, Revel, Emmer&Rye (Seth has the best burger in the city), Kisaku, Elemental. For Bevvies: Uber Tavern, Oliver's Twist, The Dray, Brouwer's.

Check back for part two of this week's Grillaxin for a recipe from chef Dustin Ronspies.

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